Thursday, August 28, 2014

Blu Ray Review: Captain America The Winter Soldier

There were a lot of problems in Captain America The First Avenger. It was way too jingoistic and far too silly to maintain its fa├žade of seriousness. The visual effects too weren’t very interesting – they were just merely adequate. The villain was a great actor playing an underdeveloped character. And the hero was only mildly more charismatic than the guy who played Thor.

A lot has happened since that movie. The Avengers took the world by storm. Marvel is now a bigger, more confident company, and it shows in Captain America The Winter Soldier. Winter Soldier takes every single gaffe of the first movie and rectifies it with glee. This is a completely different movie, and to an extent a brave one too considering its style and themes. And it sure as hell is more exciting and better arranged than the Thor sequel. It’s also better than the hit-and-miss Iron Man 3. That’s right – Captain America has well and truly arrived and Tony Stark is going to have to make way for the shield in the Avengers sequel.

While the first movie was a sort of ‘Amurica Roxx’ episode, the new film is a paranoia thriller with a hint of espionage drama. Steve Rogers (once again played wonderfully by Chris Evans) is now digesting the post Avengers world of SHILED and trying to come to terms with his ‘present’. Things take a turn when an Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) comes aboard the team with plans to turn it into a weaponized big brother central organization. It could seem like a ham fisted attempt at echoing the Edward Snowden incident, but it sure is a lot of fun. There’s also some funny camaraderie between Rogers and his new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, who turns into something cool later on in the film). Moreover, the visual effects have taken a gigantic leap forward – some of the action set pieces are bigger than the previous movies in the canon. I won’t describe any partiular set piece, and I’d recommend you don’t see any trailers of the film either - because the action here is different, and more interesting than the other Avengers universe films.

What actually makes them interesting is that they’re placed to move the plot forward, not just for mindless eye candy – even though there’s plenty of that too. And directors Joe and Anthony Russo deserve full credit for understanding that the Marvel films need to go in a new direction. The Winter Soldier chracter is handled pretty well, even though you don’t need to be very smart to guess his identity. Comic book fans will be pleased too for the way the film sets up the foundation for future movies. The film is very good, and Marvel’s confidence proves it – they’re unwilling to move the release date of the third film, which coincides with the Batman-Superman movie. It’s Marvel vs DC, and after watching this movie I can confirm that Marvel is winning. So bring it on.

The Blu Ray render is fantastic - the visuals are mildly better than what we saw in the theater, as is the sound. There is some audio commentary from the filmmakers and a bunch of goodies including behind the scenes footage, making of featurette, deleted scenes and even bloopers. For a Marvel fan who already knows most of the trivia behind the movie it's not a big deal but for a newcomer it's a decent purchase.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It’s easy to be a fan of the Space Opera genre. After being exposed through childhood and adulthood with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek one begins to wonder when the next Space Opera Adventure movie would arrive. One that isn't toned down for the kids or dumbed down for an easy cash grab.

With the arrival of James Gunn’s terrific Guardians of the Galaxy, Space Opera fans have a gigantic reason to cheer. Not only is Guardians one of the year's most exciting and entertaining movies, but is indeed the Star Wars for this generation.

Director Gunn must be one hell of a Marvel fan and comic book geek. He has followed up the half a dozen Avengers universe films and delivered a relatively unknown property with such gloriously fantastic style. A typical hack job by, say, Michael Bay, is a hollow two-hour light show pretending to be a summer blockbuster. Guardians of the Galaxy is considerably more than that.

Gunn’s film is candy for hardcore Marvel fanboys, while still managing to keep the newcomers glued to their seats. There are dozens of action sequences, all of which are kinetic and thrilling. A new creature or beautiful otherworldly space landscape is offered every five minutes, and each one is more impressive than the previous one. When the film isn't bowling you over with its awesome visuals, it serves a barrage of laughs via its extremely fun characters. Gunn had deconstructed the superhero genre in his dark comedy Super and he takes it a notch further in this film. In this day of CGI tech and glut of superhero films it's not enough to simply destroy a city at the end of the movie as a grand finale. Gunn seems fully aware of this and he treats characters more importantly than the numerous big money shots. The combination of sincere emotion, huge spectacle and a real sense of wonder and adventure is what makes Guardians so much more than a superhero movie.

We have Star Lord - a goofy but heroic human sucked into an intergalactic war; Gamora – an alien orphan assassin; Drax – a hulking badass who laughs manically; Rocket Racoon – a mean snarky raccoon with a love for firing rockets at people who piss him off; and Groot – a lovable tree like humanoid who can kick some copious amounts of ass with his branch-limbs. They’re all bizarre, completely mismatched characters, and the film milks their mismatched-ness to hilarious levels. They bicker, they fight, they punch each other in the face, but ultimately they realize that they need to stick together if they want to save their respective worlds.

The big ‘assemble’ in The Avengers was one epic scene. But in Guardians the assembly is fleshed out over the course of the movie, the conflicts between the characters timed and woven around to perfection. That gives you a chance to dive into the characters, to understand them and ultimately fall in love with them. And yet, there’s the other bonus effect of the film – The Avengers took four previous origin films to culminate into one giant spectacle, and the effect was glorious. In Guardians the starting point is on the scale of The Avengers, so good luck dousing your goosebumps.

It helps that the folks playing the heroes are so cool. Chris Pratt welds together the heroic suaveness of Indiana Jones and the goofiness of Andy Dwyer. Bradley Cooper spits sarcasm in his Rocket Raccoon – he’s pretty much the meanest superhero we’ve seen. Gamora and Drax are ruthless in their own ways. It’s so great to see these people trample over the perceived notion of superheroes having to be broody and kind hearted and overtly nice to everyone. They might be the Guardians of the Galaxy, but these guys don’t give a shit if they don’t want to. And it’s great that Marvel chose to be brave about this and offer heroes who, to quote Peter Serafinowicz in the film, are a bunch of a-holes.

The villains are equally cool - Ronan (played by Lee Pace) is pretty scary to look at, Nebula (Karen Gilan) is pure evil, and Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) also makes an appearance. The minor characters like John Reily as a corspman, Michael Rooker as a bandit and Benocio Del Toro as The Collector are all fun as well, and they’ll no doubt have bigger roles to play in the sequels.

With this huge array of characters and landscapes the universe created in Guardians is vast. Marvel continues to close the gap between the Avengers and the Guardians, and it’s insane to think of what we’ll get in the future. It’s not often that we get adrenaline, heart and humor rolled into one cohesive, iconic epic. And once the film is over, you’ll know the fun has really just begun.

(First published in Firstpost)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Blu Ray Review: The Lego Movie

This movie cannot be quantified in a simple review because it is one of the most enjoyable films I have ever seen. There are Batman, Superman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Wonder Woman and Shaquille O Neal fighting together in this film. And Bert Macklin is the hero who leads them all. Superman and Green Lantern are voiced by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill respectively. The former superhero is too cool to hang out with the latter. This is one of the, if not the most gorgeous film ever made. The animation is groundbreaking - the Lego Characters move in Lego motion, and they have different frame rates than their backdrops.

There is a Lego ocean in the film and it’s a landmark in CGI. The ocean is a vast collage of blue Lego blocks that flow individually to give the illusion of water. Insane. The film is so engrossing, imaginative and supercharged it feels like being inside a Lego game that a kid is playing with. You won’t believe this until you see it. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the makers of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street are comedy geniuses. They really get hipster culture and are the only filmmakers to have internet memes and hipster culture jokes instead of pop culture references that are found in most movies. 

Lord and Miller are also the kings of satire. The self-parodying comedy of the film is bone crushingly hilarious. The film has a song titled ‘Everything is awesome’ that pokes fun at generic pop songs in kids’ films, and it slowly, somehow becomes catchy in itself. This film has a severely awesome resolution of the centuries old hero-villain conflict that you will never see coming. Despite the constant laughs, the dazzling visuals and the thrilling action the film’s greatest strength is its charming, surprisingly deep and thoughtful story.

On Blu Ray the experience is still amazing. The quality of the animation is top class and the transfer from film to DVD is stunning. If you liked the film in theaters the animation on Blu Ray on your TV will blow you away even more. The special features include director and star commentaries, behind the scenes outtakes and a cool little 'bricks eye view' of Emmet's adventures. Well worth the price. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Begin Again

Back in 2006 John Carney gifted us the super romantic Once. The film went on to win an Oscar for best song and turned people (read: me) into weepy romantics with its winningly moving tone. Eight years later Carney is back with Begin Again which, surprisingly, is also brilliant despite Carney jumping from his indie roots to the mainstream space.

Begin Again follows the same structure of Once where two broken people meet over music and develop a strong bond, unsure of whether it’s love or infatuation, or sheer coincidence. In this case Mark Ruffalo is superbly cast as a drunken, divorced, down and out formerly famous music producer who gets fired from his job, and meets the ultimate musician and ticket to recovery in the form of Keira Knightley. The two jam over the music they create and tumble into each others’ lives, often reflecting over their pasts. Yes it’s the exact same formula as Once, but it sure as hell is beautifully played out.

This film is gorgeous. It’s pure unadulterated romance. Not manipulative romanticised bullshit like Nicholas Sparks, but real romance. There's also a tinge of dysfunctionality thrown in, and both aspects are fleshed out extremely well. Whether you’re on a date, or watching it with friends, or seeing it alone, Begin Again lifts you up and sways you around. A large credit credit goes to the awesome soundtrack that ranges from bittersweet chords to Arcade Fire style hipster pop-rock. The songs themselves are scattered throughout the film like in a Bollywood movie, but they serve a purpose within the narrative. I’ll leave it to you to discover why the songs were placed in the film, but I can tell you it’s a fun, and a rather hilarious plot device.

The swell writing and direction would not have mattered without the excellent cast. Ruffalo continues to prove his range, and he just disappears into his character – he’s hilarious in the funny scenes, and likable in the tough ones. It’s ballsy of him to not be a movie star and be a character instead. Knightley, who isn’t known much for her acting chops exudes one too many emotions at times but is still pretty good, even relatable. The people in this movie are real, not contrived 'movie people'. It's what makes the film honest and organic. The film also does a good job of not being preachy about relationships, and ends on the most perfect note. Seeing it once is just not enough, so by the time you’re done reading this I’ll already be at the movie theater, ready for the experience to begin again.

(First published in MiD Day)